Pittsburgh Steelers: Why Bruce Arians Should Not Return in 2012
Bruce Arians just finished his fifth season as the offensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
While his game plans showed occasional glimpses of success, many Steelers fans have spent much of the last half decade scratching their heads and engaging in an internal debate normally centered around the question, "Why did we run that play?"
Despite mixing in some historic performances for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and game-planning for two Super Bowls, one could easily argue that Pittsburgh's talented roster and propensity for success in other areas of the game allowed them to succeed in spite of the offensive play-calling.
Did Arians take too much heat a lot of the time? Most certainly.
However, in my opinion, many of the criticisms regarding his coaching (and, moreover, play-calling) have merit, and those who defend him rarely afford the cynics any counterargument that shows clear, statistically driven support for Arians.
Choosing to be blatant, I would offer the suggestion that his last name serve as an acronym for "A Ridiculously Inconsistent and Numb-skullish System."
That's certainly overstating the issue; in reality, I do wonder why the Steelers don't part ways with a coordinator who has largely led a talented offensive roster to mediocre league rankings during every season of his tenure.
It may be uncertain whether another coordinator could do a better job, but I'd be remiss not to mention that most coordinators being provided with such great skill talent would do two things: demand an overhaul along the offensive line and showcase comparable or better situational play-calling.
Here are some reasons that I feel Bruce Arians should not return as the offensive coordinator in the Steel City for the 2012 season.
The Talent and Production on Offense Are Disproportionate
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The Steelers feature a Pro Bowl quarterback, two supremely talented receivers, amazing wideout depth, a top-notch tight end, two (or three) versatile running backs and an offensive line that didn't always play as poorly as was displayed in the last couple of seasons.
Would you believe that in spite of the abundance of talent—a veritable cornucopia of playmaking ability—that the Steelers have not ranked higher that 14th in red-zone offense under Arians' tutelage and control?
Translated, despite the plethora of skill and versatility, Arians' units have never exceeded an NFL ranking above mediocrity in the most critical area of the field.
While the offensive line needs tweaking, the performance among the hogs up front hasn't been abysmal every passing Sunday. Injuries surely didn't help, but every team has the challenge of maintaining health and overcoming setbacks.
Yet with infrequent exceptions, the team often doesn't live up to the talent on the field.
In 2011, the offense scored 20.5 points per game. Consider the hype surrounding the crew before the season, where many fans felt confident that the talent, coupled with a franchise quarterback and fine runners, would translate to a magnificent year.
Looking back, the unit ranked 21st in the NFL in scoring! That's putrid.
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Many call the area inside the opponent's 20-yard line as the "gold zone." In Pittsburgh, the term "red zone" is more fitting, as the conversion rate has been alarming.
As mentioned, the offense has peaked at an NFL rank of 14th in red zone touchdown percentage in the Arians tenure.
Professional offenses need to score seven points near the goal line, not three or less! It's the most critical area of the field, and improvement has not happened in a half decade of work together.
What makes this struggle more frustrating is the personnel that the Steelers have acquired to accommodate the said improvements.
A nifty runner in Mendenhall can swing outside, while both Mendenhall and Redman have the strength to go between the tackles.
The unit features speed receivers, including the tall Mike Wallace along the outside, in addition to gritty pass-catchers who can find the football from the slot (i.e., Cotchery and Ward).
Lastly, tight ends and secondary receivers such as Wesley Saunders, Heath Millers and David Johnson are perfect for a condensed field, but the offense doesn't utilize these talents nearly often enough.
Illogical Use of Screens
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The Steelers have one of the best blocking receivers, arguably the greatest of all time. Likewise, they have a great blocking tight end.
Nevertheless, they refuse to attempt catching defenses off guard with traditional screens, an element of an offensive game plan that can be deadly if executed well and implemented appropriately.
Instead, the team continually uses the same bubble screen over and over again, hoping to take advantage of Mike Wallace's speed (and occasionally, Antonio Brown).
First, it's become old hat. Defenses are catching on, clearly tipped off to the play and closing the gap before Wallace can make a move on the defensive back.
Secondly, it's going to continue to get blown up due to the frequency of the call. It's being implemented with far too much frequency, a reliance that demonstrates a lack of creativity on offense.
Hell, in addition to those concerns, how many times did Ben nearly have the bubble screen pass intercepted?
In fact, an interception on that very play by Terrell Suggs changed the course of the critical loss to the Ravens at Heinz Field. With the Steelers driving deep into Baltimore territory, Ben threw a bubble screen without delay, one of the risks of the play and its required speed of execution, and it was clearly exposed.
How can any fan forget that play, or the subsequent high-definition view of Suggs' gums as he gave a closeup for the camera crews afterwards?
Predictability, Especially When Leading in the 2nd Half
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When the team was ahead in the fourth quarter, the play-calling became painfully predictable, especially in 2011.
R. R. P.
Run, run, pass.
Watch the second half against Jacksonville for a demonstration of the all too predictable R.R.P. method.
While this isn't always the case, the Steelers' offense fell into this pattern late in games too often, causing the offense's production to halt.
Keeping defenses off balance is key. When the play-calling becomes pattern-based, that's a serious problem.
Abandoning the Run and the Odds Way Too Prematurely
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Nobody will deny that the Steelers are a pass-first offense with a supreme quarterback as their anchor.
Nevertheless, the key to successful NFL offense is deterrence, the ability to make a defense honor both the pass and run, leaving them to guess which is coming next. It forces opponents to respect the entire field of play.
While going against the odds works sometimes, it shouldn't be used as a common strategy. The key to going against the standard decision on second or third down with one yard to go is to not make PASSING the team standard.
If the opposition expects run, it will be because the offense has made the wise decision to follow the odds and attempt to pick up a single yard with two downs to achieve that goal. By playing those odds, a surprise pass on occasion will become far more effective.
So, why, almost universally, did Pittsburgh's positive gains on the ground on first down get followed up with a slow-developing pass play so often this past season?
Sometimes, just going by the numbers and doing the smart thing is the right damn thing to do!
An even more egregious tactical error came in later weeks against the Broncos and Browns. With an injured Ben Roethlisberger starting, the team played in difficult elements in Ohio in Week 17. With winds whipping in Cleveland, the running game had great success.
So, naturally, the offense—which sputtered in the air due to inaccurate throws (caused by Ben's injury and the gusting winds)—decided to forgo the ground attack and throw 40 passes. The end result was inefficiency to the maximum degree and more strain on an ankle in a contest that could have easily been won with Charlie Batch at the helm.
The next week in Denver, Isaac Redman brutalized the Broncos for over seven yards per carry!
Naturally, 40 more passes from Big Ben led to a big disappointment in the end. (Sigh!)
While the focus of the playoff loss in Denver is mainly centered around the oddness of the defensive strategy, it's wise for fans to remember that the offense's pass-heavy approach led to many early incompletions, a critical interception, more strain on Ben's ankle and potential yardage left on the field by a back that was dominating his opponents at the line of scrimmage!
The Hurry-Up Offense
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How many times have Steelers fans witnessed this situation:
With plays coming from the sidelines, the offense is stagnant. Then they begin to methodically move down the field using a no-huddle approach, finding momentum and scoring critical points that change the complexion of the football game late in either half.
With the standard offense underachieving, Big Ben runs the no-huddle offense, calling his own plays based on his comfort zone and intuition, and it often gives the team a shot of adrenaline.
In fact, Roethlisberger stated during midseason that he felt strongly that the unit should implement the no-huddle strategy into their game plan more often.
Pitiful Road Play in 2011
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While much of the Steelers' road woes this past season do not fall back on Bruce Arians, it cannot be ignored that the offensive anemia away from Heinz Field was at an all-time high in 2011.
Scoring a measly 13 points against both the Browns and Chiefs was a result that emanated from the same circumstances that plagued Pittsburgh in most of their road contests, a tendency that began on an opening day loss (35-7) in Baltimore:
Surely, the list can go further.
Discipline and fundamentals are key to success, and the responsibility for instilling these values falls on all of the coaches, from Mike Tomlin to every member of his staff.
Arians, naturally, is included. It was his unit that struggled so mightily away from home.
The Treatment of Big Ben During His Injury
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The most egregious error of Bruce Arians came with the handling of Ben Roethlisberger in the final weeks of 2011. While I remained optimistic for the offense to improve under his guidance, the events that unfolded became the "straw that broke the camel's back," preventing me from maintaining my silent support of Arians any longer.
The decision to start Ben at the end of the season falls back on Mike Tomlin. The head coach should have known better, and the simple wisdom of keeping Ben sidelined would have allowed Pittsburgh to enter the postseason—albeit at home or on the road—with a healthier, if not more mobile, leader.
Sure, Arians possibly should have intervened and recommended rest, but that burden falls on the head coach more than anybody else. With a fine backup quarterback who totes a winning career record...
Eh, nevermind! Why use that guy?!
As it stood, a hobbled Roethlisberger started two of the team's final three regular-season games, completing both contests and even re-aggravating his injury.
The trend began with those contests, and it continued into the playoff game at Denver. The offensive game plan was not remotely catered to the injured quarterback, showcasing either a) Arians' inability to adapt to circumstances or b) utter irrationality.
With his bum ankle affecting his delivery, Ben was asked to complete five- and seven-step drops with regularity, throw 40 times (despite an effective running game as support in both of the final contests of the season) and even go deep.
Indeed, to the gallows with any sense of conservativeness and the heck with those seven yards per rush from Redman! Watching No. 7 throw inaccurate lollipops downfield against Champ Bailey was the way to go!
For those not sensing my sarcasm, allow me to correct myself: the entire treatment of the offense, with consideration to Ben's injury, was a lesson in foolishness.
With that taken into account, atop all of the previous considerations, it seems clear that a changing in the guard would be beneficial for the Steelers' offense in 2012.